From left, Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, Capt. Blake Luttrell, Staff Sgt. Jordan Killam, Staff Sgt. Daniel Resendez and Chief Master Sgt. William Turner, command chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, pose at the awards ceremony for Luttrell, Resendez and Killam on Sept. 25 at Pope Field, N.C. (Adam Luther / Air Force)
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One is an officer, two are enlisted. But they share the scarlet beret, and in late September, they shared a stage and were honored for valor as battlefield airmen controlling strikes in Afghanistan.
Capt. Blake Luttrell, Staff Sgt. Daniel Resendez and Staff Sgt. Jordan Killam, combat controllers with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, were recognized Sept. 25 at Pope Field, N.C., for valor under fire and wounds received while embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos in Afghanistan.
"This is the best of the generation," said Lt. Col. Spencer Cocanour, commander of the 21st STS. "These airmen underneath us at the 21st STS are the best Americans this generation has to offer. Each volunteered a minimum of three times. They volunteered to join the Air Force, they volunteered to be combat controllers, and they volunteered to deploy."
Luttrell was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in a Jan. 9 mission. He was with a unit composed of U.S. Special Forces and Afghan commandos in Mazar E Sharif, Afghanistan, when the group came under small-arms fire from insurgents fortified in caves.
One Afghan commando was killed immediately, with another hit as the fighting intensified. Luttrell and his unit moved through the enemy fire to recover the casualties, with the airman calling in airstrikes from a B-1B Lancer bombs above onto the enemy's fortified positions, according to his citation.
After recovering the Afghans, Luttrell continued to control airstrikes from B-1s and Army AH-64 Apache helicopters, causing a lull in the fight and allowing a medical evacuation helicopter to move in. Luttrell directed a helicopter before returning to continue the fight against insurgents.
In the battle, the medic in his unit was critically wounded. Luttrell tossed a smoke grenade into a cave, moved through fire and helped treat the medic and direct the helicopter's extraction, the citation said. After the extraction, Luttrell ensured that his team was safely fortified and nearby women and children were safe before directing a final air attack to destroy the fortified enemy.
"What really set him apart in this operation, what makes his teammates put him in for the award, are his actions under fire," Cocanour said.
Luttrell is back at Pope Field working to train other joint terminal attack controllers for upcoming deployments. January was his third deployment, and he had been awarded the Bronze Star for actions in Afghanistan.
Exposed to fire
Resendez, who was deployed with the 22nd Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron at the time, was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for actions taken during a battle in May 2011 in Nuristan province. Operating with a team of Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos, he came under fire immediately upon landing in a clearance operation.
Resendez coordinated the drop of a 500-pound bomb from a B-1B, which destroyed an enemy position and provided cover for the advancing team. In coordinating the airstrikes, Resendez exposed himself to fire, with sniper rounds passing 2 feet from his head, according to his citation.
"Sgt. Resendez was willing to put his life on the line to expose himself to be able to control [the airstrikes]," Cocanour said. "It takes an incredible amount of skill to make sure that bomb is on target."
Resendez controlled 11 more strafing runs during a six-hour firefight, controlling aircraft that included Apaches, UH-60 Pave Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks, all while marking an extraction zone for evacuation of the casualties.
Over the course of the battle, the airstrikes killed approximately 30 insurgents.
Killam also was presented with a Purple Heart for his actions April 15 in Afghanistan. Killam and his team were on the ground clearing insurgents hiding in buildings in the area. While doing so, Killam was hit in the face with shrapnel from an enemy grenade.
"He continued on with the operation; it didn't really stop him at all," Cocanour said.
When a helicopter attempted to land, Killam and his team realized a trap was being set for it and moved to take fire from the insurgents. His team was able to clear the area for the helicopter, and, despite his injuries, Killam stayed in the fight with his unit for a few days after, Cocanour said.